Android Intelligence Analysis

The most important thing to consider in your next smartphone purchase

Hint: It has nothing to do with the display or processor -- or even the presence of flashy add-ons.

Next Smartphone Purchase

As Android fans, we've got a heck of a lot of choice when it comes to phones these days -- a dizzying array of sizes, styles, manufacturers, and features.

But there's one element you'd be well-advised to consider over any other distinguishing factor in your next phone-purchasing decision -- and it's one that doesn't get nearly enough attention.

I'm talking about the manufacturer's level of commitment to ongoing and timely future software support. And believe you me, it's more important now than ever.

We're reaching a point where finding a device with solid performance, a decent display, and a capable camera isn't all that difficult to do. Really, once you reach a certain standard of quality, the practical differences in those areas are generally pretty subtle to most people. Future software support, however, is something that's going to have a meaningful impact on everyone -- and yet it's something few people place much weight on when contemplating a new device.

That's the reason I recently said Google's own Nexus phones are the only Android phones I wholeheartedly recommend right now -- because, in addition to providing a consistent and holistic user experience, they're the only Android phones that consistently get both major OS upgrades and monthly security patches in a reliable and timely manner, with a clear and upfront guarantee of how long that support will last.

(HTC has also been doing a commendably decent job as of late, though its turnaround time is notably longer and less consistent than what we see on the Nexus front. But it definitely deserves credit, particularly compared to the non-starter efforts of every other non-Nexus player.)

So why am I bringing this up yet again? Good question, my fellow hominid. It's because of Motorola and my ongoing astonishment with how much that company has changed -- and how little emphasis its most shocking shifts seem to be getting in the coverage of its latest devices. 

Earlier this week, I argued that Motorola had effectively become the Polaroid of Android -- a once-influential brand that's lost most of its heart and is now just a hollow name stamped on a surface. The company that earned the allegiance of many Android enthusiasts by making fast and frequent upgrades a priority now seems to be treating software support as an inconsequential afterthought -- an attitude that's simply unacceptable in our current software-driven state of mobile tech evolution.

I'm not just talking about Moto's embarrassing letdowns with OS upgrades and callous abandoning of current devices. Beyond that, signs suggest the Lenovo-run company isn't even taking monthly security patches seriously at this point.

First, the new Moto Z flagship appears to be shipping with the May 2016 Android security patch in place -- already two months out of date upon arrival. For what it's worth, Motorola tells me the phone will be "supported with patches from Android security bulletins" and should receive an update "shortly after launch with additional patches." That's a contrast to one report that indicated the phone would get no security patches whatsoever, but it's still decidedly vague in terms of language and leaves plenty of wiggle room when it comes to essential factors like when and how frequently said updates will be delivered.

Plus, actions always speak louder than words -- and Motorola's recent behavior doesn't exactly inspire confidence. The unlocked "Pure Edition" of the 2015 Moto X just got its first update since February, and that update inexplicably only brought the phone up to the May security patch level. (Also still M.I.A. on that device: the Android 6.0.1 update released by Google last December.) The Moto G is even further behind, with the most recent model still on the December 2015 security patch level, according to numerous user reports. Hell, even the company's own "Security Update" page, which promises the "latest information about security updates for your phone," hasn't been updated since February.

Does all of that actually matter? In short, yes. Sure, Android has multiple layers of protection in place at the system level, which makes most malware threats pretty meaningless for the majority of users. But monthly security patches are one of those layers -- and a significant one, at that. Google moves fast to make fixes when a flaw is uncovered. If a manufacturer decides it isn't worth the effort to send those fixes onto its customers, all that work amounts to nothing for the people who purchased its products.

You can look at Google's June and July security bulletins for yourself to get an idea of what kinds of flaws are addressed in these patches. There's some serious stuff there, including what Google describes as a "critical security vulnerability" in each of these two examples. Now, again, with all the other layers of protection in place, you're more likely to be affected by failing to keep up with your own security basics than by any sort of malware -- but a vulnerability is a vulnerability. And Google wouldn't go to the trouble of issuing monthly patches for manufacturers if it weren't important.

Whether we're talking about improving security or adding features and making things easier to use, mobile software is a rapidly evolving beast -- and over the course of the two to three years you're likely to own a phone, the state of that software is going to make more of a meaningful difference in your day-to-day experience than any other device-specific element. It's much more than a minor asterisk at the bottom of a device-purchasing decision.

(And to be clear, Motorola is by no means the only offender in this realm -- far from it. Moto's just had the furthest fall from grace and serves as a good starting point for this discussion.)

It's time for us as consumers to start treating ongoing software support as the priority that it is and letting manufacturers know -- both with our advice to those less in the know and with our own buying dollars -- that we care. Because as years of evidence demonstrates, most phone-makers sure as hell aren't invested in our long-term interests by default. If we don't care, they don't care. And complaining after the fact doesn't accomplish anything.

You, my friends, deserve better. Knowledge is power, and unlike many casual smartphone shoppers, you've got that upper hand. So don't let flashy marketing and novelty-focused gimmicks guide your next purchasing decision. Think carefully about what really matters over the long haul, and choose wisely.

Fourteen months from now, when just as many security patches have come and gone and Android "O" is out in the wild, you'll be glad you did.

Android Intelligence Twitter
The march toward exascale computers
View Comments
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies